Last week, we have been in the woods, to record an amazing singer songwriter. Why would you want to record in the woods, you might ask. First of all, it’s an adventure and we were curious how that would sound and second we were also filming the recording session for Vinyly Music, our live music label and session platform.
I will share the process of how we managed to get a great sound by following the signal chain starting with the source (the instruments) all the way towards the mastering stage.
The singer songwriter (Simon Cornelis) sang and played along his acoustic guitar. So that part was fairly standard and simple. His guitar had a direct out, which came in handy.
Capturing the sound
We were kind of limited with the amount of recording channels that we had available with our momentary recording setup. The interface offered us two xlr inputs with phantom power to use condenser mics and two additional line inputs. Therefore we decided to use a large diaphragm condenser for the vocals and a small diaphragm condenser to point at the joint of neck and body of the guitar. In addition we’ve used one line input to record the guitar pickup via DI box.
We had no prior experience with recording in a forest, so I thought it might be interesting to also setup some sort of “room” mics. But the hardware limitations we had did not let us record any more mics through the interface. Instead we did set up a handheld recording device to record the ambiance. But we did not end up using that in the mix.
As for the microphone placement we went for about 20 to 30 cm distance between source and microphones. I have to say that Simon has a very good feel for the microphone though. We did not have to guide him in any way. He almost mixed himself as he played with the distance in relation to the volume of his singing.
Entering the computer
We did not set up any outboard gear other than the interface with the build in microphone pre-amps. Therefore the signal went right into the computer to be recorded in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice (Cockos Reaper). Each microphone and the line input had one track and that’s it. We’ve just had to have Simon play a few minutes of his music to adjust microphone positions tiny bits with the headphones on listening to the direct output of the interface. Once everything sounded great, and the input levels were adjusted, we were ready to go.
During the recording
The whole process went pretty smooth due to Simons professionalism. It is so easy to record a well rehearsed musician. We’ve only had to play one or two songs twice either because a noisy airplane flew bye or because the guitar went slightly out of tune.
Studio recordings often get heavily edited, drums get time aligned, vocals get pitch corrected … then phase alignment, gating and cutting away unwanted noises and so on. Not so here. This was an open air forest recording and we actually wanted the listener to be able to hear the sounds of the forest in the background. Therefore the only thing that was left to do in the editing stage was to phase align the recorded signals.
Often times it already helps to just play a bit with the phase shift button in your DAW while listening to the lower mids. If it sounds hollow and undefined, switch the phase. If that does not help you can zoom in on the waveforms and carefully move them until peaks and valleys align between the different tracks.
I’ll also organize the tracks by giving descriptive names and I also number the tracks starting at 01. Then I group all the tracks that belong to the same instrument. Another think I like to do is to create the following busses and route all the tracks accordingly: DRUMS, LOW END, MUSIC, VOCALS, EFFECTS. The effects bus is actually a folder track that contains a few effects that I’ve included in my mix template. The effects are a slap, a half note and a quarter note delay and for reverbs a room, a plate and a hall or bigger space reverb, Sending the tracks through the busses means that in reaper you have to manually switch of the main send, so you do not hear the signals twice. The benefit of those busses is that you can quickly switch between what you are hearing in sections that make sense. Just like a conductor of an orchestra would say: “And now just horns and cellos … and now with percussion …. .” This is a great way to listen and to get the levels and equalization between the different instruments right.
With editing out of the way, now comes the fun part. Here is how the recording sounded in its raw state before mixing. (I’ve just already adjusted the relative volume levels of the different tracks).
The first thing that I do in a mixing project is to listen and roughly adjust fader levels. Once Im happy with the volume balance, I start to try different panning positions.
In this project it sounded best to me to pan the guitar line signal and the small diaphragm condenser about 68 % left and right. Since the line signal had a whole lot more bass I had to low cut that signal quite a bit to match the left and right frequency balance. I also inserted an equalizer on the guitar folder track in order to cut the bass frequencies on the sides. This is a great technique to clean up the sound and create a focused low end while keeping the stereo spread alive. The rest of the equalisation on the guitar tracks consisted of a little boost on the fundamental frequencies, a little cut at around 270 Hz to get rid of the “mud” and a little high shelf abouve 7kHz (around 3dB). On the guitar folder track I had to adjust the low, mids and highs again a bit to shape the final guitar sound. The songs where Simon switched to fingerpicking needed a little more high end, so I raised about 5 dB above 6.5 kHz.
The whole stew got finished off with a bit of compression to level out the volume with a slow attack, a 2:1 ratio, about 20 ms release and gain reduction of about 4 dB max.
On the vocals I had to almost not EQ at all. Just a little little little dip at 5.8 kHz and a low cut up to 90 Hz to get rid of the low end rumble.
Then I added a bit of compression on the vocals to even it out and to bring it even a bit more to the front. Here the settings where fast attack, fast release, soft knee and about 6 dB gain reduction max.
Guitar and vocals where then routed into two reverb effects, one which was a mid short plate with darker feel and a longer but clear ambiance space. I control the balance of the effects for the different instruments with the send level and the overall volume of the effect with the effect track fader. I also do like to add a high and a low cut filter after the reverb since I often feel like they become to present or to rumbly. A good tip for any vocal reverb equalization is to dip about 3 dB at the main vocal presence frequency of about 3 kHz. This way the vocals can be upfront without getting washy.
My master bus contains some compression, a bit of saturation, some eq with again low cut, a boost at about 120 Hz, a cut at about 320 Hz and a slight boost at around 2 kHz. This is all of course just a taste and feeling thing. I also like to set my Master Bus meter to a -14 dB offset so that I preserve lots of headroom for the mastering stage. I also do keep an eye on the goniometer, which shows me if there are any phase issues coming up.
Here is how the mix sounds after the mixing stage:
To me the mix already sounded greeat. It was not much left for me to do other than a bit of additional de-essing, a slight eq and inserting a master limiter. I did go for a final volume of about -11,5 LUFS. If you are interested, here is a very good article and video on that (including how this will help to end the “loudness war”.) LUFS,dbFS, RMS… WTF?
Here is how the master sounds: